Sometimes professionals reveal the flaws in their ethical armor in their handling of the little things.
Celebrity shark Kitty Kelley, who has wounded other celebrities with dirty-linen airing, unauthorized biographies (supposedly her hatchet job on Frank Sinatra caused Ol’ Blue Eyes to consider having her whacked), has sunk her teeth into Oprah Winfrey. The usual, well-worn method that get such bio-trash sold is a media tour, and Kelley is a veteran of it, having used interviews and talk-show experiences to make best-sellers out of her bios of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British Royal Family, and the Bushes. But these were just icons, super-stars, idols, royalty and world leaders; now that Kelley is taking on the Big O, all bets are off. It has been reported in multiple sources that the usual facilitators of Kelley’s book plugging efforts have been turning Kelley’s publicist down. They don’t want to cross Oprah.
Excuse me? Did I really write that? The media news stars, the talking heads, the sprinters in the 24-hour news cycle race—the people that always tell us that “the public has a right to know”—openly refuse to cover a story because they are afraid of the subject? What is this, South Korea? The names of the prominent media figures who have turned Kelley down include Barbara Walters, David Letterman, Joy Behar, Charlie Rose and Larry King, who would interview a ham sandwich. Amazingly, they haven’t even been dishonest about their reasons, either—ethics props for that, at least—they just are flat out afraid of Oprah Winfrey.
Apparently they have reason to be. We might be tempted to dismiss a biography of a talk show host as trivia, but that would be naive in this case. America is a celebrity obsessed culture, and Oprah has been the most powerful celebrity of the past decade, only recently knocked down to #2 on the Forbes list. With an estimated annual income of 275 million dollars a year and a significant foothold in publishing, philanthropy, television, radio, the web and more, she can influence American opinion more strongly than the New York Times, and is a genuine cultural force.
And the reaction of any legitimate journalist, reporter or pundit to that should be: “So what? If she’s that important, then it is important for the public to know about her.” That’s their job, and supposedly their duty.
I don’t care about Joy Behar, a comedian, or Letterman, a sexual harasser/comedian. They are, in theory, entertainers, and their only duties are to try to be funny and make money for their employers. Rose, Walters and King, however, disgrace themselves by ducking the Kelley book, and diminish their credibility. If an interviewer admits that he or she can be intimidated out of informing the public about a prominent figure, then we can never know what information they are failing to reveal. I don’t think…at least I hope…that there are more powerful people in America than Oprah Winfrey, like the President of the United States. Are these interviewers afraid of crossing him, too?
It may be that Kitty Kelley, sleaze merchant that she is, has inadvertently let the public in on a terrible truth: the media can be intimidated into keeping the secrets of important people. Is this why that sexual assault allegation against Governor Bill Clinton took nearly a decade to surface in the mainstream media? Is this why persistent tales of George H.W. Bush’s mistress were never covered? The web is thick with conspiracy theorists who claim that all sorts of sinister plots are going on right under our collective noses, and I have always believed, and continue to believe, that whatever its flaws, the journalistic profession has the courage, zeal and integrity to ensure that is not the case.
If Oprah Winfrey can do this, however, there is reason to doubt. There is also reason to hope: Kelley is publishing her book, after all, and the Today Show has agreed to interview her. Whatever the secrets are, they won’t be secrets much longer. And we know one more important secret: Walters, King and Rose can be rolled, and we can’t trust them.
That isn’t good, but it is good to know.